The ballad of John, Yoko and Frank Zappa

Al Aronowitz reports on a weird jam session at New York’s Fillmore East

Melody Maker, June 19, 1971

IN CASE you haven’t noticed, John and Yoko are in town.

And in case you haven’t noticed, it certainly isn’t their fault. They are gifted, of course, with their own style of spreading the word and if that style seems to take up much of their time, I’m sure it won’t spoil yours.


Anybody who doesn’t think their presence makes New York at least a little bit livelier ought to have his nerve endings checked. On Sunday night, for example, they dropped in at the Fillmore East to join with Frank Zappa’s Mothers.

Don’t let anyone dare call John and Yoko out for not touching all bases. One of Bill Graham’s dreams has always been to have the Beatles on his stage and now one-fourth of his dream has come true.

Unfortunately Bill wasn’t there for the occasion, but then neither was I. What you read in this report has had to be pieced together from other witnesses, notably David Walley, who is writing a book about Zappa.

Walley was there in Zappa’s suite up at One Fifth Avenue when the whole caper was planned. It was easy, considering the fact that there has always been some antipathy between the Mothers and the Beatles over the cover design of Zappa’s album “We’re Only in it for the Money.”

Zappa’s cover design was a parody of the Beatles’ famous Sgt. Pepper cover and legal hassles prevented Zappa from releasing the album for months. He was very annoyed. But when John and Yoko arrived with Howard Smith, described in Walley’s prose as “WPLJ’s redoubtable rock and roll yenta,” Zappa, according to Walley, “was the most relaxed I’d ever seen in New York, sitting on the couch, smiling and smoking. John was like an enthusiastic child looking extremely fit and tan.”

WHEN Howard, who is actually a columnist of no infinitesimal stature, finished his interview with Zappa, John and Yoko stayed. John asked about that notorious poster showing Zappa sitting on a toilet and Zappa told how somebody with a camera happened to catch him in the act in London. As Walley writes, “Frank likes to tell the story but hates the picture.”

“It was not exactly a conversation of old friends,” Walley writes. “The subject of playing came up old-folks style. John seemed anxious and needed encouragement. He hadn’t worked out much since his last album, didn’t know any rock and roll tunes compatible, much less Mother’s music. John said “I’ll be nervous as s—. I hope I’m not nervous.” Frank said, ‘Ah, come on, it’s just a gig. Don’t get up tight. We’ll have fun.’


“Before the second show at the Fillmore, Zappa, Lennon and Yoko jammed in the second-level dressing room to an overflow crowd of Fillmore cognoscenti and hangers-on. They played old R&B: Zappa lead, John chording rhythm and Yoko playing her Ornette Coleman voice. Just good old R&B, folks.” Zappa also showed John the hand signals he uses to conduct the Mothers, mostly with his middle finger.

“When I do this,” Zappa said, sticking his middle finger into the air, “everybody’s going to scream.” John dug it.

ACCORDING to Kip Cohen, manager of the Fillmore, the security arrangements for John and Yoko were incredibly complex.

“They cleaned out the backstage area within 10 minutes.” Walley writes “Out front, you suddenly saw all these chicks streaming out of the backstage entrance. It was like the Jews being driven from Amsterdam. Within minutes, the vibes in the wings had changed. It was like a tomb. There were maybe five people plus the technicians.”

Barricades were put up at the stage entrance and in the side aisles. The Fillmore TPF guarded the center aisle. There was no warning to the audience of what was going to happen. Zappa and the Mothers finished their set. When they returned for the encore, John and Yoko were with them. Some of the crowd had already started out the exits.

Through the audience you could hear, “John Lennon’s on-stage! John Lennon’s on-stage!” The people walking out came running back in. Dumbfounded, the audience rose as a body. “Just cool it out,” Zappa told them.


Yoko walked directly to the centre stage microphone. John and Zappa took mikes at the side. “Lennon was dressed in an off-white suit and his electric grin,” Walley writes. “Yoko looked petite, black hair glowing.” I’m told she was absolutely beautiful.

“For those of you in the band who don’t know what’s happening,” Zappa said, “we’re playing in A minor.” Then John announced that he was going to sing a song he used to sing in the pubs. It was called “Joy.”

JOHN’S amp wasn’t working properly and he kept fumbling with it. According to Walley, his fingers also kept getting caught in his guitar strings. When John didn’t know the chords, he would motion to Zappa, who would set up next to him and show him the right ones. John was fascinated with Zappa’s use of his middle finger as a baton.

“Frank motioned to John, ‘You want to do it? Go ahead and do it.’ ” Walley writes, “John turned to the audience and stuck his middle finger up. While Zappa was conducting the audience, Lennon was working the band, wreaking havoc with the tempos. No one cared.” 


Yoko meanwhile was belting it out with her electronic voice. When they finally got to a number called “Scumbag,” Zappa told the audience: “We want you boys and girls to join along. It’s a simple lyric.”

One of the singers from the Turtles put a canvas bag over Yoko and her microphone during the song but she kept on wailing. She was still wailing when Zappa left the stage and started walking up the dressing room steps.

“For out, man!” Walley told him. “Yup,” he replied. John was still onstage with Yoko, playing with feedback.

IT WAS nearly dawn when the show was over. As the crowd left the Fillmore, you could hear them talking about it in disbelief.

“I can’t tell him. I can’t tell him,” a voice said. “He was gonna come. He’ll kill himself if he found out he missed John Lennon.”

As one fan told me, “When the Mothers were on, it was just another stage. With Lennon on it, the stage became something else, it became like a visitation.”

To hell with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. John and Yoko are here.